coverage. >> 31 years ago america's cable companies created c-span as a public service. today we've expanded your access to politics and public affairs, nonfiction books and american history through multiple platforms, television, radio, and onlinend cable television's latest gift an extensive free video archive. c-span's video library. >> in his latest book, pulitzer prize winning author tracy kidder follows a medical school from burundi. he explores the issues of healthcare, immigration, and social justice in the united states. this talk from the 2009 miami book fair international is just over half hour. [applause] >> now, you're going to hear some more about the greatness that is tracy kidder.
we live in something of a nonfiction age nowadays. reality dominates television, documentaries have never been more popular in movies. and the memoir has replaced the novel as the dominant form of creative fiction. and yet despite the rich outpouring of fine nonfiction that tracy kidder may be our very best nonfiction writer. he is, in fact, the very definition of a literary journalist lending the rigorous reporting of a reporter with the sympathetic imagination of a novelist and the stylistic skill of a master craftsman he has produced work of the highest and reporting on the vietnam war for the atlantic monthly. his book book "the soul of the new machine" a look at the computer revolution came out to rave reviews and came out of the
rarest distinctions that won the pulitzer prize and the national book award in 1982. since then mr. kidder has worked steadily proving his meddle in books on an impressively varied subject matter. house published in 1985 takes us in the very heart of the american dream as mr. kidder describes the day-to-day frustrations and triumphs of his own attempt to build a home. for school children he spent five months in the racially mixed classroom of a fifth grade teacher to show in persuasive detail what's wrong and what's right with our educational system. in hometown published in 2000 he casts his eye on an american town of 30,000 with his dying main street and its cast of real life eccentrics, politicians and police officers. mountains beyond mountains published in 2000 is a story of a doctor, a harvard professor who shows that it is possible to help the most desperate of poor people in places like haiti,
peru, cuba and russia. i won't tell you much about his new book "strength in what remains" but the "new york times" wrote of it that mr. kidder has a casual mastery of complex topics. and this book is perhaps at its finest as an examination of the nature of human charity and good will. as the "baltimore sun" said, tracy kidder is a master of nonfiction narrative. please welcome tracy kidder. [applause] >> thank you. it's nice to be here. i'm going to talk a while and read a little and then i'm going to show you some pictures. i'm afraid that the stories have already been told but i'm going to tell you good. a young medical student narrowly survives the onset of civil war in his native country, the small
east central african nation of burundi. he survives because he left the door to his room open and the men who would have killed him assumed he'd already fled. he made a six months long escape on foot first from burundi's war then to the genocide of rwanda and then back and almost back accident he got transported to new york city. he arrived at jfk with $200 in his pocket, no english, a visa obtained under false pretenses although that was all been long since fixed. no friends or relations. and memories of horror so fresh that that he sometimes confused past and present. his first trip on a subway he got lost for most of a day. he eeked out sort of a living delivering groceries at night he slept in sparkle. -- central park and sick and in despair helha delivered groceri
to a small catholic church where he met a nun and what he needed was a family and so doggedly that sometimes he wished she would quit. he was essentially adopted by a childless american couple, a painter and a sociologists neither young and rich but brave-hearted and in two years he was enrolled as an undergraduate at columbia university. i was struck by its various remarkable features by its dramatic, of course. among other things it opened up for me a sense of wonder at having heard what he went through i felt or any way hoped that i would never again look at anonymous faces in quite the same way particularly the faces of people with foreign accents in places like new york or
janitors, hotel maids, taxi drivers, young men delivering groceries. who are they really? what memories and dreams do they carry? what abilities that they may never get to use? but what drew me to dao's story first of all, what made me think i might want to try to write about this was something rather small. telling me about his time of homelessness, he mentioned before he headed for bed in central park he'd look all around to make sure no strangers were watching because anyone who saw him entering the park at that late hour would guess that he was homeless. when he told me this i thought of my daughter. once years ago when she was a young teenager on a trip to new york she started to cross a busy street against the light and my wife yield at her and afterward in cold fury my daughter said, thanks a lot, mom. for ruining my reputation in new york city. [laughter]
>> i knew that dao's story was true right then. and more than that i recognized his feelings. and not just in my daughter. i could imagine myself in his place fearing not the -- fearing the eyes of strangers. fearing not the darkness of the park or what might happen to me if i surrendered myself to sleep there, but the disdain or pity of stranger who would never be anything but strangers and i thought i could find a way into his story if he decided he would let me tell it. as he eventually did. the other day someone told me i was a purposive writer. i think that's a word. [laughter] >> by purposive, i think she meant writing that aims to expose and analyze important problems and offer persuasive solutions but somehow it seems important to say that i don't
deserve that compliment. other writers do. writers who understand that the world's recurring catastrophes, the grossly inequitable distribution of help and civil war and genocide aren't accidents but the products of socioeconomic and political structures with histories that can be uneithered. -- unearthed. they focus on large groups of people they may pause now and then to describe individuals but as a rule they do this in order to illustrate points that they want to make about what seems more important to them which is the fates of populations. i respect the motives that often lie behind that kind of writing. i've learned from people who write theoretically. i'm forever in their debt. but i have a hard time bending my mind around generalizations. often all i can think about are the exceptions. to me the sheer scale of big subjects like genocide and war
and epidemic disease makes them incomprehensible through any single approach. i don't think one could claim to understand -- begin to understand an event like the great depression only by reading about a fictional family's experiences in the "grapes of wrath" but i also don't think you could begin to have a sense of what the holocaust was without reading at least one account of an individual life that was immeshed in the holocaust in a great novel like "the periodic table" for instance stories can be a window on the enormity and enormousness and a means to borrow from william blake to see the world in a grain of sand. we're born responding to stories, i think. one way we organize the world's chaos and one way we pass that information on from generation to generation. the best stories are living monuments to memories that have to be preserved. and they don't need any other justification.
by training all the dickens my mother used to read me and by inclination and probably by deficiency i understand the world best through stories. and because the engine of any story is human character, i've spent most of my years not as a writer looking first of all not for subjects but for characters. a smalltown cop whom i first met because i was speeding. my wife met him later that same day for the same reason. [laughter] >> and he didn't give her a ticket. [laughter] >> and this interested me. i soon discovered that hewv didt usually give women tickets 'cause he didn't like to see women cry. [laughter] >> there was a pair of old men who were in a nursing home room who were spending their time in
that vestibule to eternity doing something more interesting and more difficult than playing bingo which is making friends. a team of computer engineers who were trying to build a new machine essentially against their company's wishes. i remember that my interest in those engineers quickend when one of the team took me aside and began to tell me stories about what he called the wars. he used all this marshall language. he talked about people who shot from the hip and they said there was blood on the floor and as near as i could tell he was talking about the creation of immobile plastic boxes. [laughter] >> on one occasion i did set out to find a person in a profession, an elementary school teacher but once i found her in a grubby school in a rundown massachusetts milltown, what i set out to do was to tell the story of a year inside her classroom. that story happened to reveal some general truths about the problems of public education in america. so much the better i felt but it
would have been impossible at least for me to generalize that teacher and her class with them so vividly alive in front of me. i once wrote a book about the building of a house. an idea i got from having been my own incompetent, nearly suicidal carpenter for a time. [laughter] >> but what fascinated me once i got into that project were the carpenters and the homeowners and the architect and the relations among them. my book "mountains beyond mountains" really began when i ran into dr. paul farmer by accident in haiti and my new book "strength in what remains" began in much the same way when i met dao on a visit to paul farmer. in both cases i was interested initially not in the issues that interested those men but in the outlines of their lives, which seemed eminently suited to storytelling.
i probably shouldn't admit this but what i aspire to, aspire to is art. art has the great power to transform the experience into something beautiful. art is created with a certain obliviousness to commerce and also to didacicism. the great storyteller once said, and i think i got this right, that if you're telling a story about time, the one word forbidden you is the word "time." when you talk about a book you've written is quite reasonably what it's about and yet when it comes to this book of mine, i don't feel entirely confident about any of my answers. i do know it's not about africa. conceived by so many of us americans as one vast dysfunctional country. i know i didn't want to make
burundi seem exotic. i wanted to make it comprehensive. we hear about mass slaughter in distant countries and we imagine murder and mayhem define those locales. i wanted the back of my mind any way i hoped that dao's story would humanize the story of burundi and open up a point of new york that's designed to be invisible. the service entrances on the upper east side and the campers in central park. it has to do the generosity of strangers and the uses and disuses of memory. but we already know the basic truths about those subjects. that war and genocide are deplorable. that human beings are capable of great resilience. that charity happens. that memory can be an ungovernor have governable torment. what i wanted without telling myself this is to allow readers to experience those facts not as
truisms but as we experience them in our own lives. to experience them again through dao. the writers i admire all do this. they make the world new. again. i think the storyteller's central job is to catch the reflection of individual human beings. each by definition unique on the page. but the richest factual narratives always have something in addition. if you're drawn first of all to individual characters, you're also drawn, of course, to try to understand the world's that they inhabit especially the subjects that preoccupy them. and dao's case the main subjects were and are public health and medicine and the rabid state of his country after 13 years of civil war. his story still amazes me. when i followed him around he had permanent residency. he didn't have to be back to
burundi. and patients who can't pay their bills are detained imprisoned essentially in the hospitals where they landed. and in prison without food or care. but mainly because of those ills dao returned continually and amid the post-war wreckage with the help of his legions of american and friends he created an organization called village health which is a clinic for people who can't health. village health works is affiliated with partners in health a much larger organization founded by village health works has to raise its own money. building and staffing a clinic in a desperately poor country isn't easy. the clinic was a pile of rocks when i visited the site with dao in the summer of 2006. by the fall of 2008, it was providing food to the hungriest people in the area, clean water
to all of them and it was also a medical center, which in its first year and a half of operation treated 28,000 different patients. most of them for free. there was -- there still is nothing like this operation elsewhere in burundi. people come there for help from all over the country. some people come on week long techs from other countries, too, from the congo and some visitors have come not for medical help but only to look at the clinic. when dao asked one of these travelers why he had come the man said to see america. when i first heard that i thought this was a misconception for us to live up to. but when i heard president obama's speech in ghana, i thought a little differently. if you recall he imagined a new partnership between the united states and africa, one that would be grounded in mutual responsibility. village health works seems to me
one small example, a model of african and american cooperation, obama's lofty vision embodied in miniature. an instrument of peace. burundi is a country that was torn apart by largely artificial differences between two groups of people. differences that were exaggerated for the advantage of a few. dao has inspired an anecdote or the beginning of a potential anecdote. which focuses on something that unites all of us which is our common vulnerability to illness and injury and our common hope for life. personally i find this enterprise of his very moving. in part because it enjoys tremendous support from its local community especially from the women of the village who have a large say in its operations. i'll finish by reading you a short passage from near the end of my book.
this is mostly dao speaking. speaking at a fundraiser in new york, dao told this story. this past summer we needed some help to make a road that goes to our site passable. a friend of mine told me, well, dao there's a great belgian construction company that builds roads there. and i was so excited and i went to talked to the representative of the company. he sent someone to look at the road and estimated a cost of at least 50,000 u.s. dollars. not to pave the road but to just widen it and make it passable. i went back frustrated. wording how to tell the community this bad news. as i was explaining this to them, one woman with a baby crying on her back said to me, you will not pay a penny for this road. we've become so much sick because we are poor but we are not poor because we are lazy. we will work on this road with our own hands. the next day 166 people showed
up with pickaxes, hoes, machetes and other tools. one was a volunteer who came to work with a sick child. we saw the baby was sweating. i then asked the mother why she came to work with a child that sick and she said to me, well, i've already lost three children and i know this one is next. whether i stay at home or come to work here. so it's better for me to join others and make my contribution which will help to save someone else's child who will be sick and alive and you have a clinic here. the entire road six kilometers long was rebuilt by these people with machetes and hoes. the same day the road was finished the representative of the belgian road construction company called me to negotiate the price. you can imagine how i felt to get that call from him. i said to him, thank you so much for your call but it's already done. he was obviously shocked and said to me, what do you mean? who did it? we're the only road construction
company in the entire region. and i said not newer. -- anymore. [laughter] >> thanks. i'd like to show you just some photographs from burundi if i may. this is the pile of rocks. this is just -- this is the operating room in the nearest district -- the district hospital nearest the clinic, village health works clinic. it's pretty dreadful. this is a woman with goiter easily prevented. i think she's been treated since this. some terrible photos, sorry. this is -- i don't know if you can see this. i'm a little blinded but
these -- those are burn marks. this young -- this boy has a spleeno megly and it's very painful. and what parents have traditionally done, poor parents, is to heat a pipe in a fire and to make burns around the painful spot. dao's father did that once when he had an abscessed. it's a horrible form of pailiation but it's all that's available. it has been all that's available. dao made much of this philosophically. he called it relieving pain with pain. this is a picture of -- a picture of dao. many of pictures of dao's of a woman who's detained inside a hospital. he bailed her out and then he took her to meet the minister of health. he got her into the minister of
health's office, past the security guard by saying, oh, no she's the minister's aunt. the minister will be so glad to see her. [laughter] >> but the policy is still -- i think still in place. i'm not blaming the current government, frankly. this is the typical hut in the village. medieval really. the woman who lives there lost four of her children to stupid illnesses. you know, things easily prevented. here are the kids of the village being told once yet again there was going to be a clinic. they are always ready to party. and here -- just in case you thought this was a made up story here are the people going to work on the road. and that woman who was working on the road.
a common sight. poor countries. this is the beginnings of the clinic. here are the kids pitching in. this is a 50,000 liter water tank with its own internal filtration made in germany that is now supplying clean water to almost the entire village and to part of the bigger village downhill. this is a piece of the clinic but it's much bigger now and getting bigger than now as we speak. they're building what will be the first -- the first maternity clinic in all of burundi. that was a picture that for some reason doesn't come out of the
production the demonstration gardens that dozens of volunteers have created both to feed the malnourished and to try to improve local agricultural practices. this is the first electricity ever in this village. the money came from a generous american and the insulation was made by a nonprofit organization. it's 10 kilowatts of power. this is a training of community health workers. that's paul farmer's wife actually with her back to us. this is the typical cue in the morning outside of the clinic. the pharmacy, the lab technician. these are all the pictures of dao's. paul farmer treating a patient from the clinic and transported to the capital. this is an american doctor who
gave up his practice for a year to just go and work there for free. another friend of dao's. this little -- this is the doctor who's in charge there, a really fine doctor. this little boy was an abandoned child. someone working at the clinic found him and brought him back there. i'm not current on this now but for the -- for a time he was certainly a ward of the place. but he's severely malnourished in this picture. i'm sure you can see it clearly. here he is afterward. [applause] >> all they did was feed him mostly. isn't he cute? this is a picture -- you can look down from the clinic onto the lake. here's another picture of my failed pictures and here's the pitch. so thank you all very much. i'd be glad to answer any
questions if there's time and if you have any. thank you. [applause] >> are we doing questions? yes, ma'am. [inaudible] >> the population of burundi -- no one is absolutely sure but something on the order of 7 to 8 million. maybe more. roughly the same size of haiti and rwanda. it's near neighbor to the north. [inaudible] >> dr. farmer is working -- partners in health is working in rwanda in a big way. they have a large project there. but he's been lending support to dao's project. and partners in health has given them assistance in every conceivable department. yes. >> hi my name is stephanie and i
go to miami-dade college and i helped to read "mountains beyond mountains" over the summer and it inspired my cause 'cause we did an event here in haiti where we're building projects for products and i have to say thank you. but i wanted to say because -- i want to be i'm getting worked up. your book is basically a documentary in writing and i just wanted to know how did you ask paul farmer to follow him around even throughout his travels to like miami and to like france? like one of the things that really stuck out to me and really help pitch to get money -- like we did bake sales in schools and there's women like oh, no i'm on a diet. and i remember something that you wrote in your book saying, you know, we have the luxury to say we're on a diet, you know,
when there's people who can't even eat. sorry. and i just wanted to ask, how did you get to follow paul farmer? >> i met him -- i was doing an article in haiti about american soldiers and i ran into him and i got interested in him. although at six years passed i mean, i kept sort of vague track of him for those six years. i think it's odd to me that pursue him right away because he was so clearly interesting. but i think the reason was haiti. i was shocked by haiti. and i think -- when i came back, i was -- i tried -- i spent a lot of time and energy trying to reconcile the fact of haiti with my own privileged american life, trying to hang on to my conviction that i had earned all my privileges.